29 March 2010

One More Healthy Lap

Owing to the title of this blog, it’s appropriate to note that I’ve just completed one more lap around the sun and am now one year closer to that next age group. And while on the topic of milestones, it’s now been five years and 7,700 miles since I returned to the world of the runners, five years that have done very good things for my health. This is pause for some reflection.

A couple of days before the Big 47, I went to see my new doctor, having had to procure a new one after apparently driving the last two out of town (a shame, I liked the previous one, we’ll call him Dr. Driven-Out-Of-Town-Two) for a ‘get to know you’ and a physical. I’m pleased that she was pleased to learn of my exploits, unlike Dr. Driven-Out-Of-Town-One who – hard as it is to believe – berated me for running too much. I’m sure that 90% of his patients were Certified Couch Potatoes, yet this guy frequently reminded me that, in his mind, “The human body was not designed to run marathons,” and handed out another prescription. It was not a terribly sad day when he moved away.

Dr. Driven-Out-Of-Town-Two, on the other hand, greatly appreciated my contribution to the reduction in his Patient Couch Potato Ratio, promptly yanked me off all but the weakest cholesterol med, and simply enjoyed the story with quiet mirth when I walked in with the broken nose after Wineglass. My kind of guy. But sadly, he too ran for the hills (literally, New Hampshire), which led me to his replacement, who we’ll call Dr. Lady Doctor, she being the first of her gender to serve as my primary portal to the health care system. On that day, Dr. Lady Doctor proved to be a worthy replacement, applying intelligence rather than sheer number recognition to my primary medical issue; that being a slightly high overall cholesterol count – but slightly high in part due to being boosted in part by a towering good cholesterol count that frankly I’m pretty proud of, knowing that running contributes that that positive result.

But then things got a little tricky, and the head-case gnomes had their day. Based on a minor complaint, she ordered up a couple of reasonable tests, just to be sure all was well. I left a little of me in her lab and went on my merry way, only to return home that evening to the ominous, “Please call the office,” phone message.

Now, I’m nearing 50 but in my view healthy as a horse, at least compared to the average Joe. Yet in the last few weeks I’ve seen several of my contemporaries get some bad news, in one case very, very, very bad, and I’m not foolish enough to think that runners don’t also have issues. We die, too. And for some reason, that phone message set me off. No logic, no reason, just the head-case gnomes set loose.

As it happened, the next day was one of the wilder ones, racing from one customer meeting to another, always unable to call in when the doctor’s office was able to pick up the phone. As the day progressed, my irrational black cloud grew thicker and darker. I was sure something was up, or down, or otherwise out of whack. I was sure the Big Decline was about to begin.

Not until day’s end did I finally reach them. “Oh, the doctor was looking over your files and you haven’t had a tetanus shot since 1996.” Gales of hysterical laughter. Recognition of my own self-induced stupidity. Perplexing thank-yous to the nurse on the other end for her not having told me of my imminent demise.

We all know it is going to come some day, and every day brings us closer. But it behooves us not to let ourselves get there ahead of time. It’s just not healthy. Take care of your health, and believe in your health. When the time comes, as my wife reminded me during my 24-hour funk, we’ll deal with it.

Which of course brings us to a certain national issue, one that is sure to raise hackles no matter what I say, but one which, in the context of this topic, can’t be ignored. When I was younger (note that I said “younger”, not “young”, as I won’t really admit to being old yet) I truly believed that for the most part, each person’s health was under their own control. As I’ve aged, it’s become clear that while plenty is within our control, that while responsible and healthy living are absolutely important and unfortunately not practiced by nearly enough people, the reality is that excrement occurs. People smoke and drink and eat cheese balls and live to 105, and others like my dear friend who has lived a very clean life are diagnosed with almost-certainly-terminal cancer when only a few years older than I.

With that reality, we as a society have to accept that health crises happen and will, at some time, probably happen to all of us. Only the luckiest among us will live those charmed lives of blissful health until we drive into a tree at high speed at age 87 and turn off the lights instantly. And we have to accept the reality that in our society, that health crisis can and will break you not just physically but financially. Even those of us with well-paying jobs and money in the bank are just eighteen months (one layoff, COBRA, and no new job) and one diagnosis away from financial ruin. Here in Massachusetts we’ve put a safety net in place. Those elsewhere, which is most everyone else, aren’t that lucky.

The health care bill passed into law is seriously flawed, no doubt. But it’s a start. It’s something that can now be tuned and tweaked to make it better over time. It will cost us money. Personally, I don’t care, I’m willing to pay a little more in taxes to build the kind of society that I want to live in. People quickly forget what tax levels were like in the pre-Reagan years. Do some hunting on the web and find out – it will open your eyes. And not just the marginal rates on the rich. In those days many of the exemptions, deductions, and credits that currently erase or negate payments by a vast group of lower-income people simply didn’t exist.

I’m not wishing for the days of skyrocketing tax rates. But Warren Buffet has noted that the only reason he could make his billions is because he lived in a nation that had built a society that made it possible, a society with certain norms and expectations and structures that provided the stability that made it possible for him to thrive. People going belly-up left and right due to medical bills do not make for a stable society. Perhaps twenty five years in the Bay State have turned me more blue, but I like to think it’s accumulated wisdom & compassion. I want to live in a society where we’re willing to pay a percent or two to care for the inevitabilities that will befall each of us, a society that recognizes that whether you live or die shouldn’t be determined by who your employer is.

Have those who’ve thrown bricks through windows in protest thought about what they’re saying? That they’ll resort to violence to withhold care and compassion for their neighbors? And eighteen months and one diagnosis later, perhaps themselves?

Take care of your health, believe in your health, and believe that we all deserve to do the same.

08 March 2010

Just What the Doctor Ordered

Sunday was a milestone, the close of a full year since returning to running after the Big Slice foot surgery. A year is a long time to keep feeling like you’re working on a comeback. At some point you have to either get there, or change your destination. Sunday’s occasion was Stu’s 30K, and the result was that I’m pretty close to getting there.

To be sure, I’ll never really be back the way I was before that tendon went snap (remember the movie Airplane? I’ll never be over Mucho Grande…but I digress…). That repaired tendon is strong, but not like new, and in the high miles of those long, hard runs, I certainly feel podiatric unpleasantries – nasty foot strain, hot spots & blisters from just not running quite like I did before, and the worst part, a predisposition to foot cramps later on, when relaxing. But that’s the new normal. Deal with it and move on.

Moving on has meant trying to get back to the level of fitness I had before the surgery. It’s been a tough fight. Back in 2008 when I first met Rocket John, we turned in a couple of 15-17 milers in the mid-6:40s, which blew me away at the time. Next thing I knew, I blew away the three hour barrier at Boston that spring. John and I popped in a 21-miler a couple weeks back at close to 7-minute pace, but the thought of returning to cruising in the 6:40s was mere wishful thinking.

Until yesterday. Stu’s was just what the doctor ordered, not just for my body, but for my head.

Stu’s 30K (named after a former race director) has been a Central Massachusetts classic for over 30 years. Classic in its uniqueness – how many 30K races can you name? Classic in it’s field – it is effectively the Pre-Boston for much of Massachusetts’ top running community. Classic in its execution – run like clockwork by our friends of Central Mass Striders. Classic for its weather – often disastrous, but this time, perfect. And most of all, classic for its course – which is effectively all hills.

Stu’s circumnavigates the Wachusett Reservoir, which was built over 100 years ago to slake the thirst of Bostonians. Wachusett flooded what had been the center of West Boylston, forcing them to move the town uphill, and leaving as the only sign of the old town a famed old stone church, just a shell today, but a well known landmark and the logo for the race. Stu’s ambulates over the rolling hills that surround the lake with only a brief flat stretch along one edge, before climbing away to pad the distance to spec, of course adding another hill in the process. As West Boylston was my home for six years in the 80’s and 90’s, I know those hills well. But the worst – or best? – part of Stu’s is saved for last. Returning to Clinton at mile sixteen and a half, you find yourself alongside the top of the dam that holds back the lake, at the elevation of the finish and a mere mile away – if you could cross the dam. You can’t. Dam.

Instead, you scream your weary and rubberized legs down a hundred and fifty foot drop, only to have to buy it back. But not just once, twice. Mile seventeen greets you with a hundred foot climb, then another drop into downtown Clinton, and at seventeen and a half, yet another hundred foot climb, steeper. How sweet, just when you’re fresh. We live for this stuff. Eat ‘em up, boys & girls.

I’ve been aiming for Stu’s for some time. Three years ago it didn’t fit the schedule. Two years ago I was signed up and paid before the schedule changed and got in the way again. Last year it wasn’t till two days later that I hit the track for my first post-surgery miles. Finally! This year it happened. And what a year for it to happen! A brilliant, sunny, perfect 45 degree spring day, marred only by a moderate headwind for the outbound leg, just an addition to the challenge.

Out the gate a lead and a chase pack quickly formed. With a field of this caliber, both were a bit hot for me, but I stuck with the chase pack for a little drafting benefit. Mile one: 6:14. Excuse me? Well, at least that was on one of the few flat sections… Sanity quickly took hold, I latched on to a couple guys chasing the chasers, and we settled to the higher sixes as we chewed off the first ascent.

Mile five was a patented Stu’s screamer, plunging down to lake level, my split likewise plunging down to ludicrous level, another sub-6:20. That one surprised – and alarmed – me a bit, but all systems seemed nominal, in NASA-speak, so on we trundled. Still, the coming climb from the lake to the center of West Boylston brought back memories of a 5K I’d run last spring that finished by heading up that section, and that one had hurt. I wasn’t keen on a repeat.

What a difference a year makes! Like that, we were through the center of town with surprising ease. Having by this point missed splits at two, three, and four, (and I’d miss again at six), I wasn’t entirely certain of my pace, so I wasn’t quite certain if I should be worried – either too fast or too slow, but the passing hills were starting to convince me that the year’s comeback work might have worked. Fret not, just run.

On the long rise up Route 140 I felt downright strong. I hit the half in 62:40 and starting doing the time banking math: for my target of 2:08, roughly 3-hour marathon pace, about 6:53/mile, I had a minute and a half in the bank, and with those last hills in Clinton, I figured I’d need it.

My Ace Support Team was out at about mile ten. And after years of Death-Warmed-Over racing pictures, we finally nailed it: I felt good, I even tried to smile, and my wife and daughters got some killer shots there, and at their several additional stops as we leapfrogged our way back to Clinton. Finally! Some decent race shots! And what a team!

Round the bend at mile ten, screaming down another Stu’s patented downgrade, I’ve got a good one going here, and what? Never in my life have I had a shoe come untied even on a training run. And now? Can you believe it? OK, it’s only twenty seconds, but really!

Resume cruise-control. After the wardrobe malfunction, everything clicked. Miles eleven through seventeen, which, to be fair, trended downhill, clocked in the mid-6:30s. The second 10K came in faster than the first. Ho boys, we got a good one going!

When it came into sight, I yelled loudly, “DAM!” just to have some fun with the runner behind me. Poor bloke, didn’t know the course, and really thought we were almost done. Cruel world we live in.

Past the dam. Feet are getting tender. Scream down the other side. Here it comes. Final Insult Climb One hurt. Down the other side again, into Clinton. Final Insult Climb Two really hurt. Mile eighteen came darn close to eight minutes in a race where my slowest mile had been seven flat.

And that was it. The eighteen mile mark, the hill flattened, and I chased a youngster in at high speed. I couldn’t catch him, but I didn’t care. That last zero-point-six-four came in at kickin’ 5:25 pace. Grunts emanating, lungs hissing, limbs flying, body fluids spraying, and that line went by in 2:04:49.

Holy cow. I can still do this. I wasn’t at all confident in hitting my goal of 6:53 pace. Instead I hit 6:41.8, roughly 2:55 marathon pace. With negative splits. Of course, in a marathon I’d still have 7.6 miles to go! But even Heartbreak Hill doesn’t hit you like this course. Whether I can or can’t hold that for the whole distance next month – well, only time will tell (pun intended) – and if I do or don’t, it doesn’t really matter, because I feel like I’m back in the ballpark. Mentally, this was an incredible boost.

I think “comeback” needs to be adjusted to “came back”.

Related News Department: You may recall that one of the redeeming attributes of Dr. Foot Doctor was that he got it – his wife runs marathons, so he understands the twisted running mind. As it happened, Mrs. Foot Doctor was at last week’s Hyannis festivities and was also at Stu’s, just proving that she’s as warped as me. She related to me that Dr. Foot Doctor and his partner, Dr. Partner Doctor, apparently won a prize of some sort for their submission on my case at their recent conference. To which I hoot, “Way cool and many congrats!” And to which I note that now I’m not just a case, not just a certified case, but apparently an exemplary certified case. Woo hoo!

Two Thirds of the Ace Support Team

03 March 2010

Quest for the Quahog

In what’s become an annual event for my club, but was a first for me, we spent the weekend on Cape Cod at the Hyannis Marathon and Relays. Hitting this event en masse as a club multiplied the fun, even when punctuated by the self-induced pain of some hard racing, and best of all we came home with a bunch of the coveted Quahogs!

Being involved with a group of runners opens doors to more adventures. There are some things you just can’t do by yourself. Get your mind out of the gutter and think relay team. It would have been easy to slip down to the Cape and pop into the half marathon – almost a non-interrupting event on the training continuum – or even the full, and it would have been a good time. Either would have been great training for Boston. No logistics, no hassles, just go and run. Yeah, but…

Instead, our tiny club of perhaps 45 people descended on Hyannis with about half our membership and made it an event. Our four marathon relay teams and half-dozen individual runners gave it the feel of walking into the opening ceremonies of the games with your countrymen. Representing the Republic of Marlborough-Hudson, the Highland City Striders! The NBC commentator would make some pithy statements about our city, perhaps about that famed bell we stole a hundred plus years ago (and refuse to give back) and they’d cut to a vignette on one of our athletes, then off to another cell phone commercial. OK, I exaggerate a bit, but every time you turned around, there were our peeps. We had presence. Heck, we even supplied the diva – one of our running wives who sang the national anthem before the start. It was undeniably empowering.

The Hyannis races are held at the tail end of winter when nothing else is even breathing on the Cape. I’m sure that cuts the rent on the host hotel facilities, but it also assures plenty of undistracted volunteer attention. They pull off a fine event. There’s a small expo in a big room which later turns into a big post-race feed ‘em and read ‘em their winnings center, and they bring in a few legends like Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter to make it interesting. Between the full, the half, the relay, and the 10K, over 4,000 runners take part, yet somehow I got lucky and found Mrs. Foot Doctor – remember Doctor Foot Doctor? – yes, his wife was running the half, and I’d hoped to meet her – without even trying. It’s homey like that somehow.

Our men’s masters team consisted of a fast guy – none other than Rocket John, a fairly fast guy – yours truly, a reasonably quick guy – Dan, and a not terribly fast – but not all that slow – guy, Dave. While the overall event is large, there aren’t a whole lot of men’s masters teams in the event. We knew our chances probably depended more on who did or didn’t show up rather than any seconds we could shave on the course. But that didn’t stop us from wanting to crank out whatever we could.

To make it more interesting, our club set a challenge between our teams: they who came closest to their predicted time would win a round paid for by the team furthest off. I queried our team for their expected paces, and calculated a prediction of 3:03:49. But, often hassled for being a bit too obsessed, I decided to relax the precision a bit, figured adrenaline would give us those 49 seconds, and publicly proclaimed 3:03 flat. Remember that bit!

Race day was typically baffling for New England. The forecast? Ugly. The reality? Not bad, indeed, quite pleasant, surprisingly precipitation free. But knowing the course headed to the sea, I anticipated wind and cold, and layered up a bit. When my third leg finally came about, the wind did kick up, but not where expected. And it wasn’t that cold. Go figure. But the bigger baffling wildcard was that I told my team I’d crank out my 7.3 mile leg at 6:25 pace, based on recent races. It occurred to me later that I’d never tried to hold that pace without others around me also holding that pace. With our not-terribly-fast-but-not-terribly-slow guy taking leg two, I realized I’d take the baton amidst a place in the pack where the average pace was a good minute slower. I’d have to push for that predicted pace unassisted, something I’d never done before. You can think about this stuff for only so long, then time takes no prisoners and it’s time to go. Dave ambled in and it was off to the races, baton in hand, ready for some Tonya Harding action if the need arose.

If I had one criticism of the event, it was that the splits weren’t well marked. And that was the one thing I really needed in my pace-doubting state-of-mind. Being a half-marathon-length two-lap course and starting my leg at the half-marathon point going into the second lap (appropriate, eh?), one would expect to see mile 14, then mile 1 a tenth further on, and so forth. But mileposts 14 & 1 were nowhere to be seen. Markers 15 & 2 did appear, about, oh, say, about yay far apart as expected, but 17 & 4 (yes, 16 & 3 were also AWOL) were a very different distance apart. As were 19 & 6. So while my split from 2 to 4 was reassuring in absolute terms, I certainly wasn’t confident it was anywhere near accurate.

So what? Just run. It was a seven and a third mile sprint, which for me is not my forte. But the number of people we had “in theatre”, on top of the manner on which the course loops on itself offered a constant stream of teammate and friend encounters with constant shouts of encouragement – more than I’d ever heard in any one race. And the scenery bordered on sublime, past Hyannis’ inner harbor, out to the sea, lighthouses, beach homes, the Kennedys’ neighborhood, it’s all good. Finally, the last bend appeared before the long stretch to the exchange zone at Crane’s Beach, and I could see Rocket John ahead. I thought he was going to pace me in, but when he saw me, he turned tail and flew off to warn our fourth leg of my arrival. I was momentarily demotivated, but, being a big boy, I figured it out and got over it. Into the exchange zone, almost fell over Dan, and done. At 6:20, ahead of my pace. Woo hoo!

After a few minutes’ recovery, Rocket John and I decided to finish the half-marathon loop and run it back in. We quickly gave up trying to explain ourselves to onlookers as we cruised by looking chipper while those around us were slugging through the high miles. Having not found Dan dead and sprawled out on the course, we figured he’d done just fine on his leg, and he did – he too beat his forecast pace, and when the damage was tallied, we took home the coveted hand-painted quahog shell trophies that Hyannis is famous for. Even sweeter, I chanced across Bill Rodgers in the hotel as another team of relay winners asked him to sign their clams. I’m not real big on autographs, I mean, what do you really do with a piece of paper with someone’s name on it? But having the greatest runner ever (at least in my book) sign your trophy – well, that was simply way too sweet. A thrill I’d waited for since, oh, age 17 or so.

All this left but one order of business – that intra-club challenge, and a lesson to be learned. If you recall, I’d calculated 3:03:49, but dropped it to 3:03 to be simple. Dan crossed the line in 3:04:05. While being a minute-five off was nothing too shaggy, had I stuck to my engineering accuracy, we would have missed by a mere sixteen seconds! Sixteen seconds, I tell you! Now, our Clydesdales are claiming victory with a mere TWO second gap between prediction and actual, but that’s only if they use the gun time, not the official net time, by which we’ve got ‘em whupped. A protest has been filed with the IOC judges...stay tuned!